"It's possible to be a strong female presence in the Bluegrass music world, but you have to be really strong. Laurie is one of the greatest Bluegrass artists, woman or man, because of her consistency over decades, the depth and width of her subject matter, her commitment to the Bluegrass form, and her technical command. Oh yes, and her strength. Laurie's strength manifests in many ways: her commanding presence on stage combined with an emotional vulnerability, the truths in her lyrics, her physical voice which transcends gender, her strong commitment to causes and issues in which she deeply believes, which all resonate with a respect for the land, the natural world, and human mercy and justice." -Darol Anger
With the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe just past, it’s no surprise that this year has seen the release of one tribute after another to the Father of Bluegrass, recapping many of his best-known — and sometimes most obscure — songs.
And there’s no doubt that Laurie Lewis could have made such an album herself, and done so with distinction. After all, as an artist thoroughly grounded in bluegrass, she has the necessary familiarity with his music, the skill and the passion to do the job as well as any and better than most. Yet while Laurie bills her new album, SKIPPIN’ AND FLYIN,’ as a tribute to Monroe, it’s one of a different sort — deep, intimate and personal, honoring the spirit of the man as much as his music.
“I went to sources that Bill went to, or might have gone to,” Lewis says. “I’m not trying to do a Bill Monroe sound-alike album; that would be a terrible fit. But through my years of playing music, I keep going back to the guy because there’s such a deep well there.” Those years have taken Lewis down a long and winding road to her own unique status as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist — but as she points out, it’s a road that looks more than a little bit like Monroe’s. Her thoughtful liner notes pinpoint specific points of inspiration in his vocal techniques, his focus on writing “true” songs, as well as the kind of band he assembled. “It’s an ongoing thread in my musical life. I fell in love not just with the music, but with the vehicle for the music. I just love a string band,” she adds with a laugh. “A string band of versatile players can do just about anything — they can follow me just about wherever I want to go.”
That’s as good a description as you’re likely to find when it comes to the players on SKIPPIN’ AND FLYIN.’ There are, to be sure, a few outstanding guests like the legendary Linda Ronstadt and longtime musical buddy Kathy Kallick, but for the most part, Lewis relies on two bands of bluegrass pals and on her closest musical partner, singer-mandolinist Tom Rozum. And whether she’s leading one configuration through a deliciously true-to-the-original take on Monroe’s signature “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or fronting the other as it glides through her own “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” Lewis — just as Monroe did — elicits masterful performances from her players by encouraging them to bring the same creativity to the work that she does. Everything else aside, this is an album filled with stunning musicianship that achieves its greatest impact precisely because it always serves the songs.
And what songs they are! There are Monroe songs — the well-known, of course, but also the less recognized meditation “A Lonesome Road,” written by Blue Grass Boy Joe Stuart. Lewis calls on Flatt & Scruggs, too, for a couple of signature numbers, and turns to the IBMA’s newest Hall of Famer, Del McCoury, for an early masterpiece, “Dreams.” Yet she also emulates the pioneers’ focus on creating unique, identifiable sounds of their own by serving up originals that deftly blend the familiar tropes of the classics with her own distinctive writing voice on songs like “American Chestnuts,” that bid to become modern classics in their own right.
Yet as strong as the songs and the musicians are, there’s no denying that SKIPPIN’ AND FLYIN’ is a Lewis tour de force in performance. Her singing is perfectly attuned to the material, soaring and muscular at times, or softening to a whisper when that’s what a song calls for — and if anyone could manage to forget her fine yodeling, there are reminders of that, too. And while she’s more than happy to give the spotlight to fiddler Chad Manning or guitarist Scott Huffman, it’s clear that when she picks up either instrument that she’s among the most accomplished and most idiomatic yet original players on each.
“I started at the back and worked my way forward,” Lewis says of the way she learned bluegrass. The truth of the matter, however — and SKIPPIN’ AND FLYIN’ makes the point with unmistakable grace — is that while Laurie Lewis may be passionate about bluegrass history, she’s facing forward, too, and every bit as much a part of its future as she is an aficionado of its past.